An airstrike carried out by the CIA and U.S. Joint Special Operations Command that killed radical Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki today in Yemen was illegal, according to international law expert Mary Ellen O’Connell, one of the world’s leading experts on targeted killing.
A key al-Qaeda leader, al-Awlaki has been in hiding in Yemen since 2007.
“The United States is not involved in any armed conflict in Yemen, so to use military force to carry out these killings violates international law,” O’Connell says. “It is only during the intense fighting of an armed conflict that international law permits the taking of human life on a basis other than the immediate need to save life. In armed conflict, a privileged belligerent may use lethal force on the basis of ‘reasonable necessity.’ Aside from armed conflict, the relevant standard is ‘absolute necessity.’
“International law and moral principle have been breached in a place where the United States should be demonstrating non-violence and support for peaceful means of transforming society,” she says.
O’Connell is the Robert and Marion Short Chair in Law and research professor of international dispute resolution at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, as well as the vice president of the American Society of International Law. Her area of specialty is international law, international legal regulation of the use of force, conflict and dispute resolution.
O’Connell is a noted participant in debates on the law and morality of using military force. She chairs the International Law Association’s Committee on the Use of Force, which recently completed a five-year study of the definition of armed conflict. She has testified before Congress and spoken to a wide variety of audiences about the international legal restraints on the use of force and the origins of those restraints in the Catholic Church’s Just War Doctrine. O’Connell has spoken extensively on drones. Watch video of her discussing drone strikes in Pakistan.